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Pravasi Special: 'India has stayed in my blood'

By Roopa Unnikrishnan
January 08, 2015 00:07 IST
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‘My own Indianness has kept me evolving and changing -- and that’s something that nobody and nothing can take from me,’ says Roopa Unnikrishnan, who left the Indian shores a decade ago.

As India gears up to honour its pravasis to mark their contribution in the nation’s development, presents different perspectives on the Diaspora.

Earlier in the series:

T P Sreenivasan: The coup that changed India's diaspora policy

George Joseph: A look back in anxiety

Shreekant Sambrani: Friends of India

Stepping onto the plane taking me from Chennai to London in September 1995 felt momentous -- both my father and I fought back tears. 

There is a wrench in leaving the people and the places that make you who you are.

But India has stayed in my blood, my instincts and in all my decisions. 

Indianness has imbued the way I interact with the world, make choices, contextualise shifts and changes.

When India began to embrace its Pravasis, there was a sense of rightness.

We weren’t prodigal children, just children sent off to wage our own personal battles in distant lands in the name of the motherland.

As my husband, @sree, tweeted when we became US citizens in 2013: ‘My Indianness isn’t defined by the documents I carry in my pocket, but the heart I wear on my sleeve.’

The Diasporic Indian reassembles his or her sense of India daily as we read or hear about developments. Sometimes, it’s a controversial New York Times feature, at others it’s an Internet meme. 

It’s John Oliver reeling from Prime Minister Modi’s ‘May the force be with you’.

I smile, because in many ways, the world is bewildered by all that we do -- and by that I mean India and Indians everywhere. 

To these casual observers, it’s unimaginable that the khadi-clad Indian leader of deeply-held religious beliefs can unfurl his Star Wars coolness. 

Not so to me -- we have been a land that has been embedded in international affairs from time immemorial.

Living in the US, a country that constantly evokes a Christian God, writing this during my holiday in the UAE that enforces the principles of Islam on all visitors and those who live in its borders, my hope for India is that she remains the deeply complicated country that has the wisdom to be a secular State.

My own Indianness has kept me evolving and changing -- and that’s something that nobody and nothing can take from me. That’s the Indianness in my blood, and the blood of all of India’s warriors abroad that will keep us going and keep us special, anywhere, anytime.

It was while in the heard of New York that I rediscovered Vedanta and evolved to vegetarianism. 

I have built a business around change and innovation, but often find my success comes from my respect of the strong businesses that worked in the past and are looking to change in a way that respects their past.

I have seen Indians of every walk of life, age, colour and gender take to the streets to protect our women. 

I remember growing up in and India where I thought twice about getting into a bus to go to school -- I would rather walk for 30 minutes than be mauled by random strangers. 

That memory makes me especially happy to be in a world where I can step into the subway and peacefully read my book, knowing that a daily debasement is not part of my commute. 

It’s about both a rule of law where I know my wellbeing is respected as well as a social contract where no one would stand by if I were attacked in any way. 

You ask me what I would change. 

I would want every Indian to place a girl child’s wellbeing to be just as important as that of her male sibling, when the reaction to a woman is not lechery but respect, when the rule of law doesn’t cave to money but stands by human values. 

When a woman’s deeply felt grief is not rationalised away by the old men around the table -- that’s when we’ll be turning a new corner. 

I look forward to coming back in the summers and maybe taking the bus with my daughter, and knowing I don’t have to be on full alert for unwanted physical contact. 

That’ll be the day.

Let us value our heritage -- Hindu beliefs that drive an inclusive and reflective approach to the world. But I hope we can be the beacon of true modernity in the world. We are and can always be different -- it doesn’t take a totalitarian State or an imposition of one culture or religion to be special. 

India’s place in the world could be in getting beyond borders to be a truly human State where we can work towards providing all our citizens, no matter what their origins and beliefs, with a life full of promise.

Is that a utopian vision? I think not. 

The government’s policies around public health and education gesture towards a real shift in approach to achieving this vision. 

But to me, the real differentiator in India is the vast numbers of truth-tellers we have in our midst. 

These are the young and the not-so-young daily warriors in our midst -- in media, in government, in business and in law. 

These are the folks who just won’t be complacent, the ones who will strive to make things better no matter what.

They are what make India different. 

Their instincts have not been dulled by compromise, religious bylaws, by wealth, the easily-accessed-fast food meal. 

As long as we have people in our system who say… “lekin”, “but”, “pashey”, “illa pa…” we will constantly evolve and change for the better.

Roopa Unnikrishnan is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Arjuna Award winner, Rhodes Scholar and the founder of Center10 Consulting in New York City.

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